Thursday, April 12, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Whoopee Wednesday' And The Crew Of Flight 650


MOORHEAD, Minn. - By the end of the night, which started during the ``Whoopee Wednesday'' happy hour at the Speak Easy restaurant here, the tabs could have been mistaken as evidence of college frat buddies on the prowl.

There was little food: an order of onion rings, an order of chicken wings and an order of fried eggplant chips. There was a lot of drink: 14 rum and Diet Cokes and six pitchers of beer.

But the $54.61 tab wasn't run up by college kids. It was billed to three airline pilots, just hours before they were scheduled to fly a Northwest Airlines Boeing 727 jet with 91 passengers aboard.

Law enforcement officials allege that even more alcohol was consumed. Robert Kirchner, a co-pilot at Northwest, paid for the drink and food with his American Express card on that day, March 7. But officials say someone else bought the crew five more mixed drinks and another pitcher of beer.

Since that evening of drinking, Kirchner, Captain Norman Prouse and Flight Engineer Joseph Balzer have been arrested, have had their pilot licenses yanked, have been fired by Northwest, and have been charged with federal and state criminal violations for flying the jet from Fargo, N.D., across the river from here, to Minneapolis while legally intoxicated.

All three deny they were drunk or even drank so much alcohol. They pleaded not guilty Tuesday to one felony count in the case before a U.S. magistrate in Minneapolis and were scheduled to appear today in North Dakota to face misdemeanor charges.

The flight landed safely. But the incident has stunned the aviation community, reopened a debate

about whether the current federal rules are strong enough to keep crews alcohol-free, and provided fresh momentum to a bill long stalled in Congress that would require random testing of pilots for alcohol abuse.

``The current federal policy is far off the mark of what is prudent,'' said Jay Winsten, director of the Alcohol Project at the Harvard School of Public Health. Federal rules prohibit crews from drinking alcohol less than eight hours before a flight, or from flying with a blood alcohol level of .04 percent. Several airlines, including Northwest, exceed that standard and prohibit drinking less than 12 hours before a flight.

But Winsten says studies have shown that pilots' performance can be affected even after they are no longer legally drunk. For example, a 1986 study found that 14 hours after drinking enough to be legally drunk, pilot performance is diminished because of hangovers.

Though the pilots' actions have received the most attention, this incident also raises questions about the Federal Aviation Administration's performance. An FAA inspector in Fargo that night received a telephone tip that the crew had been drinking, and he questioned them at the airport. But, incorrectly thinking he didn't have the authority to stop the flight, he let Northwest Flight 650 take off and didn't tell Northwest the nature of the problem.

As a result of the incident, the FAA moved quickly to retrain its safety inspectors.

No fatal accidents of large jets have been traced to either alcohol or drug abuse. But the Northwest incident is likely to give impetus to the congressional proposals to require pilots to undergo drug and alcohol tests on a random basis. Other experts have said pilots should be required to undergo ``performance tests'' on a random basis just before flight time to see if they are able to function.

All three Northwest crew members had years of flying experience. Prouse, the captain, has been flying for Northwest since August 1968, according to court papers. Co-pilot Kirchner and Flight Engineer Balzer have been flying since 1977 and 1978, respectively, according to FAA records.

Balzer, 34, was a new Northwest pilot, still on probation. He had been a co-pilot at Eastern Airlines, but left during the strike last year to take a job at about half his old salary.

Prouse, 51, previously has faced allegations of heavy drinking. Minnesota court papers show that a Northwest gate agent in 1977 prevented him from boarding a plane as a passenger because he ``appeared to be intoxicated and belligerent.''

At the Speak Easy restaurant, according to law-enforcement officials, the three crew members drank consistently throughout the evening: pitchers of beer for Kirchner and Balzer, mixed drinks for Prouse.

Defense lawyers say the bar tabs filled up so quickly because the pilots were buying the drinks for other customers.

Witnesses quoted in the FBI affidavit say the crew became ``visibly intoxicated.'' The witnesses told authorities that Balzer seemed to have trouble focusing his vision, and Kirchner and Balzer couldn't walk steadily. Prouse fell out of his metal chair, and had trouble getting up.

Balzer and Kirchner left earlier than Prouse - the precise time is in dispute - but late enough to violate Northwest's 12-hour rule.

Prouse stayed behind until about 11:30, the affidavit says. Speak Easy employees say that his waitress had decided not to serve him any more drinks just minutes before he got up to leave. He returned 20 minutes later, saying he couldn't find the Day's Inn - located two blocks away, its yellow and black sign partly visible from the restaurant driveway.

The crew was supposed to arrive at the airport at 5:15 the next morning to prepare for the 6 a.m. departure. Waiting for them was Verl Addison, the least experienced inspector in the small Fargo FAA office. Addison, whose specialty is private aviation, had been on call that night when an anonymous tipster called the FAA answering service about the crew's drinking.

Prouse and Kirchner arrived about 5:45 a.m. Addison interviewed the captain and co-pilot in the cockpit of the 727, where the FBI affidavit says he noticed that both had bloodshot eyes and detected the ``stale odor of alcohol'' on their breath.

At one point during the interview, sources say, the captain told the co-pilot that he couldn't get a test pattern on his radar, and asked Kirchner to call maintenance. Addison looked over and, clearly seeing the test pattern, told the captain, ``Your test pattern is right there.'' The captain then ordered the maintenance call canceled.

Addison left the cockpit to call his superiors. At 6:25, he learned that Balzer finally had arrived. He questioned Balzer on the edge of the ramp. Balzer volunteered to take an alcohol test, but Addison didn't take him up on the offer.

Addison walked 15 feet from the ramp to a pay phone, apparently thinking he had another 10 or 15 minutes before the flight took off. But the other crew members already had completed Balzer's preflight tasks, so the door was shut, and the plane taxied out while Addison was on the phone to superiors. Addison left the airport, refusing to talk to Northwest employees.

In mid-flight, the crew was told by radio that they would be met at the gate by FAA and Northwest officials. Once they arrived, they were placed under citizen's arrest by another FAA inspector.

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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